It was upon graduation from high school that two friends and I took a 7,000-mile journey. After several weeks of backpacking and road camping, we came upon a strange fellow living in a restored bus just outside of Custer battlefield in the Northern Bighorn Mountains. He shared with us this book he had been enjoying, called Be Here Now, by a fellow named Baba Ram Dass (aka Richard Alpert). There are some signal moments in life where a particular shift in direction can be discerned. This book was to be that for me. I immediately acquired a copy and kept it near me for years. And I used to ask people if they had read it, sort of to check them out as to where they were really at. Many had; in fact the book and the author became quite popular. During my college years I was able to hear Ram Dass lecture in person, sharing a Saturday afternoon outdoor stage with musician Taj Mahal. Now those were truly “the days.” Why am I telling you this? Because Ram Dass will be part of OMfest at the Church in Ocean Park on Sunday, October 28. He will be presented for an hour on a live Internet feed. We spoke recently and I can assure you his spark can be transmitted electronically.
I was concerned about his health, as he had suffered a stroke several years ago. “I have a cane, wheelchair part time, and now restored speaking after I had lost my voice from the stroke and lost [the use of] my right hand. Other then that, I am doing well.”
Ram Dass told me that he has a weekly streaming video that Internet users can access. He says this gives him the ability to have “heart-to-hearts, which is one-to-one with people in their living room and my living room, where our hearts come together with this incredible technology. Then I have once a month a streaming lecture to the world through our website, ramdass.org.
“OMfest is working to raise funds for an ashram I founded in New Mexico. I have had a lot of relationship with New Mexico because I was connected to there via the Lama Foundation, which published Be Here Now. I had a large Hanuman monkey of pink marble produced in India, and I did not know where to put it. One of my devotees of Maharaji [Neem Karoli Baba] had a barn, which in the barn he had space, and it was in Taos. So we situated the monkey in the barn. And we are about to build a temple for it. This is a special Hanuman because they usually make it kneeling or standing, and I asked for a flying Hanuman. Because he leaps over the ocean to save Sita, Ram’s wife or devotee, and then he goes across the ocean to contact the devotee and reassure her she still has God’s love. So I figured Hanuman can come over to our country to reassure us of God’s love. It carries a ring, Ram’s ring. When I asked the builder there – it is a family that makes Hanumans in Jaipur – and they had never made a flying Hanuman. So I said, Don’t worry, we will keep it up – Western science would keep it up in the air, but they didn’t believe me so they put a cloth underneath it. So he rests.”
Ram Dass, why are people attracted to you?
“Perhaps my history of psychology and psychedelics, and then going to India. And then I am a pretty good speaker. And, I think, Maharaji.
“I refer to the book Soul on Fire by Elie Wiesel; it is filled with legends and the Balshemtov. Everybody knew him through their imagination, and that is the way I would like to present Maharaji. He is more active during the time when he passed away than he was in the time before. Because so many people have read my book Miracle of Love and have had visions and dreams and so on, and they have him. And he is an amazingly compassionate, wise playmate.
“All I am doing is spreading the word about him, because I met a real one and he was it. Because he was an ‘other’ person and he could do miracles. He spread love and spread love inside you, unconditional love, and I think there are not many people who can do that.”
We had a brief discussion of Paramahansa Yogananda, whose Lake Shrine is near my home in Pacific Palisades. I told him my only disappointment with it was the fact that the Native Americans who had lived there for 5,000 years were not presented along with the five major religions. I mentioned how these people were criticized for leaving nothing but seashells. He laughed and said, “A Zen person would say I left with nothing, and he would be bragging.” Which was precisely my point as well. Talk about a sustainable society.
Tell me about your life journey.
“My family were political Jews, not spiritual Jews, and I thought with some anger they did not initiate me into the true spirit of Judaism. All I got from my Bar Mitzvah was fountain pens. When I tried to understand psychedelics, I got the Tibetan Book of the Dead instead of Hasidic lore.
“The Buddhist, American-Buddhist, teachers and many of the people of the Eastern religion devotees are Jews, an interesting fact because either they did not get what they wanted in Judaism or they got from Judaism a yearning for the One. First I went to Buddhism and then to Hinduism. In India, when I was in there the first time, Buddhist, it was kind of anal kind of Buddhism, and then I looked at Hinduism with all of its calendar art and loudspeakers, the many gods, and I thought, ‘ooh, that would be a terrible thing to be a Hindu.’ But that was the consciousness before I met my guru. I met him in 1968 and then wrote the book after that.”
Why have you settled in Maui?
“When I was touring, I came to Maui and really felt peaceful. I was in San Francisco before Maui, and some of my people said, Come on to Maui, which was three years ago, and it is so magnificent. I am looking out over the ocean, and by not flying I just contain myself in this island. When I was in India there was this town where Hindus came to die, Benares. When I went there the first time I came as a Westerner. There were people in the streets with leprosy, etc. and I felt sorry for them, and then I went and studied in the temple, and I learned a lot about Hinduism. When I went back there six months later, I looked in their eyes and they were satisfied they were going to die in the place that they wanted, and they were taken in the hand of Shiva. Then I looked more deeply in their eyes and they were feeling pity for me, like I was a hungry ghost, and I decided that I would find a place where I could feel satisfied and stay here until I die. It was a wonderful feeling for somebody who has a history of being on the road. I live in Upcountry, but it is really surrounded by ocean. I live in the raining part, the vegetation is beautiful, and yes, we have papayas. I am living with people, loved ones, I have retreats, and for the first year I did it in my residence. I have satsang here with just Maui people; they are lovely hippies and we sing. I have this house, it has an upper-floor view of the ocean, and I am writing like hell. The bottom floors are all the people who take care of me and other stuff. I am doing two books at the moment; one is called Joyous Aging and the other a book about the saints.
I thought about my prior question of why people are attracted to Ram Dass. It should be noted that Dr. Richard Alpert was a noted psychologist teaching at Harvard when he started the Psilocybin Club on campus and started associating with Timothy Leary. That alone would make for interesting conversation, but while Leary stuck with drugs for the most part, Alpert evolved into Ram Dass and went off in a completely different direction. For me, it was about his ability to be humble and real in order to reflect back to his audience their own daily foibles. And all of it was done with a great sense of humor; perhaps that was the overriding factor for me, his sense of humor about it all – the challenges, the mystery, the struggles of daily life – all made real by his poignant wit, which had a love and warmth to it via the stage, the Internet, his books, or even on the phone where I admit to a glorious hour-long conversation.
For information about OMfest, go to sacredevent.org.